Rt. Rev. William Otter

WILLIAM OTTER 1768 – 1840

Rector of Colmworth 1804, Bishop of Chichester 1836 – 1840

By the Reverend Michael Hewitt 9/6/2000

‘On the 3rd August 1999 a vicar in Bognor Regis, Mr Roger Jupp, who was researching the life and work of William Otter, wrote to me asking for clarification on the year Otter relinquished the living of Sturmer. To that date I had no idea that William Otter had been here (although his name is on the clergy board) and, because of my personal association with two of the colleagues with whom he was connected, I was somewhat amazed and quite thrilled.

Born in 1768 at Cuckney, Nottinghamshire, he was the fourth son of Edward Otter, vicar of Cuckney and of parishes in Derbyshire. He was a Rustat scholar of Jesus College Cambridge, becoming a Fellow. He was ordained in 1791 to the curacy of Helston in Cornwall at the same time teaching at the Grammar School.

He had made a number of friends at Jesus College among them the economist Thomas Malthus and Edward Clarke with whom, in 1799, he went on a tour to Hamburg and Sweden and later to the rest of Scandinavia and Russia. Clarke described Otter as “That ornament of the University of Cambridge, the most accomplished scholar.”

In 1804 Otter was appointed Rector of Colmworth in Bedfordshire and married Nancy Bruere, eldest daughter of the Secretary to the Government and member of the Supreme Court at Calcutta. Robert Holtby says in his book: “further benefice was added in 1801, Sturmer in Essex and in 1811 he moved to the more lucrative rectory of Chetwynd in Shropshire.” (He had been presented to Sturmer by the 4th Duke of Portland). The clergy board here points to his being inducted in 1799 and so there appears to be some discrepancy in date. Since we are all products of our past and formed, in part, by the interaction we have with other people, we should like to think that the “Valiant Warriors around Sturmer” (Battle of Maldon Anglo-Saxon poem) played a role in his character formation and therefore subsequent highly esteemed offices.

William Otter lived at a time of social unrest and his key to good social harmony was that “every rank shall be made to feel for every other as for itself and all knit together by the ties of mutual respect, as well as kindness and affection” (Pastoral address 1836-40).

In 1822 he had become a private tutor at Oxford and in 1828 University College London, the first secular university in England, was founded, partly in protest against the religious requirements of Oxbridge. The Church of England was quick to respond and in 1829 a group of Anglican enthusiasts, supported by the Prime Minister Wellington, secured a Royal Charter for a rival London college, Kings, in which the doctrine and worship of the church were to be formally recognised. In 1830, Otter accepted appointment as its first principal and vacated all his previous preferments.

Gordon Huelin, in his book published commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the foundation, says: “The Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the opening ceremony on Saturday 8th October 1831. Its main ingredients were an eloquent sermon preached in the chapel by the Bishop of London on the duty of combining religious instruction with intellectual culture and, after a short interval, a weighty lecture by the new principal. Together they occupied four hours.”
The author of the centenary history wrote: “Mr Otter was a scholar and a gentleman, with a mind and heart admirably suited to the demands of the college’s early years. Mild and amiable, he had plodded his way through academic and ecclesiastical office – rather dull, but with occasional signs of perception in social affairs, and making no enemies as he moved up the ladder of preferment. He was moderate in politics and religious, a man excellently calculated to allay animosities, to close controversies, to soothe sensibilities, and to promote peace”.

F.D. Maurice wrote: “By a courtesy which made itself felt in all his words and acts, and which evidently proceeded from a divine root within, he caused men of the most opposite opinions to understand that they were parts of the same family.”

In 1835 the east wing of Somerset House (Kings) was completed and Otter moved in to the principal’s house overlooking the then nearer river, the Victoria Embankment not being built until 1870. A year after moving into the house, Otter was appointed to Chichester.

Consecrated Bishop of Chichester, he at once set about establishing a Diocesan Board of Education. A circular letter was sent out to all clergy and laity inviting them to a meeting in Lewis in February 1839. The education of the people was a principal theme of his episcopate and he was appalled that large numbers of poor children were still brought up in darkness and ignorance. He wrote in pioneering but measured terms of the day: “It never could be consistent with the Divine Will, that at the moment when the light of knowledge is spreading rapidly through all classes of society above the poor, they should be shut out from whatever measure of it may be consistent with their welfare and condition; still less that, for the sake of the gospel, we should violate the capital virtue of the gospel, Christian Charity.”

By July 1838 Otter had founded Chichester Theological College – the first such Diocesan college in England. This continued until the 1980s. Charles Marriott of Oriel was its first principal and “the first £50 given to me to begin it was from W.E. Gladstone.”

In England, it was not until the first decade of the 19th century that an expansion of formal school education was envisaged on a scale which would make serious consideration of the training of teachers inescapable. The day of William Otter’s funeral brought together many of the influential people in the diocese, who were sympathetic to his aims, and the occasion was used to hold a meeting in the cathedral library which resulted in the formation of a committee whose express purpose was to establish a Training School dedicated to his memory. Lord Chichester described the occasion in a circular letter distributed the following month: “Impressed with a deep sense of the benefits conferred upon the diocese by the pastoral labours of our late lamented Bishop, a large body of the clergy and other persons who had been attending his funeral, assembled with a view to testifying their feelings in such a manner as might do honour to his memory, in his services to the church, and of the singular affection and respect which he had gained from all classes during the four years of his episcopate. The strong and active interest which the Bishop had always taken in the cause of education and the conviction that the welfare and very salvation of England depend mainly, under Divine Providence, on the improvement of education and that the only way of bringing about such an improvement is to raise the character and qualifications of schoolmasters, concurred in pointing out that the erection of a building for the Training School at Chichester, to be called Bishop Otter’s School, would be the fittest memorial of his merits and of our gratitude.”

The sum of at least £2,000 was needed and raised. Bishop Otter School subsequently became Bishop Otter College; Bishop Otter College of Education; The West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (linked with Bognor Regis College on two campuses) and now University College, Chichester awarding its own degrees. Among its renowned principals have been Betty Murray whose biography (‘Caught in the Web of Words’) of her grandfather, Sir James Murray (the compiler of the first Oxford Dictionary) has been translated into many languages. Her successor, Gordon McGregor, now in retirement in Selsey, became principal of the College of Ripon St John at York, the largest Church of England College in the country.

When you go to London to view the Gilbert Collection and Courtauld Gallery within the newly opened Somerset House, pop into the east wing and up the stairs to the second floor to the heart of the building. There, as Otter would have liked, you will find the chapel. On the north wall you will see a memorial to William Otter. I close with its words: “Sacred to the memory of the Rt Reverend William Otter, bishop of Chichester, principal of this College during the five years since its first foundation. How much may have been achieved by his virtue and wisdom the prosperity of the college still bears witness as it flourishes in renown, learning and unity. No one brought to the task of governance a clearer mind, a more distinguished benevolence or a heart better disposed to humanity. Those matters which are usually involved in new human discourse, diverse hostile opinions and debates were either calmed or quickly settled by this moderator and principal, not by fear and punishment but by persuasion, exhortation and guidance he ensured that they should both see and want proper resolutions. Imbued with these moral qualities he carried out his duties affably to both teachers and students alike with mellowed wisdom, liberality of mind and gentle manners. At length, however, borne to a higher status with the same mind and an equal skill he shone in still greater work and application that he might return to the realm of the Church, entrusted to him and accepted from God, for the providing of education of poor children, the building of churches and attracting and better preparing young men for the sacred ministry. While tirelessly engaged in these duties and concerns as a particularly diligent and faithful servant, unafraid of the Lord’s coming, he fell peacefully to sleep in Christ the 20th August AD 1840 in his 72nd year.”


Bishop William Otter by Robert Holtbty. Otter Memorial Paper number 6.

King’s College London 1828 – 1978. Gordon Huelin. KCL

Somerset House Guide Book.

Bishop Otter College and Policy for Teacher Education 1839 – 2980. Gordon McGregor. Pembridge Press 1981.

A Portrait of Bishop Otter College, Chichester. 1839 – 1990. Heather Warne and Trevor Brighton. This book contains a photograph of the Oriel Window above the cloisters. The carving depicts the arms of the See of Chichester impaling those of William Otter beneath the mitre. The rebus beneath shows an otter devouring an eel or serpent. The Latin inscription reads: This College, for training teachers of the poor children of this diocese, was erected as a memorial of the piety of the most worthy Bishop William Otter, in the year of our Saviour…

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